Monday, December 29, 2008

Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)

Although WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Ari Folman, Il/De/Fr, 2008) has been almost unanimously acclaimed for its innovative character, this animation movie, also almost unanimously categorized as a "documentary," actually is a very classical piece of what Sigmund Freud once called Trauerarbeit ("mourning work"). The film is an attempt to recuperate its maker's lost memories of his role as an Israeli soldier in the 1982 Lebanon war which ended in the massacres of Palestinian refugees carried out by the Christian Phalangist militiamen who were allowed by the Israeli Defense Forces to enter the camps Sabra and Shatila. In the film Folman visits former fellow soldiers, a war correspondent who witnessed the invasion of Beirut and the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, a befriended shrink and the unavoidable psychologist and trauma expert to find out where he was himself during this episode and what he had done.

Folman's friend Ori Sivan, who acts as his personal shrink, makes the obvious and alsmost inevitable reference to the WWII Nazi camps, when he explains to Folman that his awoken interest in the tragedy of the Palestinian refugee camps goes back to the history of the sufferings inflicted on his parents by the Nazis in Auschwitz, of which he must have heard as a child. And, of course, the Israeli policies towards the Palestinians have often been compared to those of the Nazis towards the Jews. However, the ground for this comparison is not a role change from former victim into hangman, but rather in what Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in their groundbreaking 1967 book called Germany's postwar Unfähigkeit zu trauern ("inability to mourn"). And more significant than the suggested comparison and its concomitant role switch between the tragic events in both the Nazi and the Palestinian refugee camps is this "displacement" which by pointing to one traumatic event continues the repression of another. And here WALTZ WITH BASHIR enters grounds that are familiar from "the New German Cinema" (Fassbinder, Wenders, Schlöndorff, Von Trotta a.o.) and American Vietnam war movies like APOCALYPS NOW (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1979), THE DEER HUNTER (Michael Cimino, USA, 1978) , HAMBURGER HILL, (John Irvin, USA, 1987) PLATOON (Oliver Stone, USA, 1986), the RAMBO sequels (USA, 1982, 1985, 1986). As WALTZ WITH BASHIR, these films too are phantasmatic rather than historical or biographical journeys into the German and American unconsciousness that serve to build up a screen against rather than to reveal and face some painful historical facts (such as the humiliating American defeat by an adversary that was by all accounts deemed inferior to the American military).

This is exactly the film's strategem: if it seems to lift a tip of the veal in the final live-action video images of desperately crying and screaming Palestinian women who have been eventually allowed to re-enter the camps only to find the mutilated corpses of their husbands and children scattered over the ruins of what were their homes only a few hours ago, it is only to conceal that this film is definitely not about the Palestinians and their suffering or about what really occurred in the camps under the very eyes of and probably with the consent of the Israeli Defense Forces. This film is all about the "mourning work" itself, which is also a way to avoid the confrontation with the events that caused the trauma in the first place.

The film states this quite openly. Folman's personal shrink Ori Sivan tells him about a psychological experiment in which subjects were presented with pictures from their own family album plus one concocted montage picture which showed them as kids in a kind of a theme park. No less than 80% of the respondents recognized the picture and told the experimenters that they remembered that happy day, whereas a significant number of the 20% who didn't recognize the picture later reported that they did recollect that particular outing. The psychologist and trauma expert explains the phenomenon of "dissociative personality" which means that in stressful or traumatizing moments a person may "dissociate" herself from his or her personality and experience the event as a neutral, impassible observer. As if these lessons in the capacity of the human mind to dissociate itself from traumatizing events and to fill gaps in memory creatively with images and stories appropriated from whatever available source are not enough, Folman's former fellow soldier and friend Carmi Cna'an, who now lives a wealthy life in the Netherlands, is only seen smoking joints, and booz, porn and rock music pop up constantly during the film. And when Folman asks him if it is allright for him to make drawings in the snow with his sun, Cna'an says that drawing is okay, as long as Folman doesn't film. Drawing, the basic technique on which animation is based, assumes the function of protecting a childish and pure ("snow white") innocence against the harsh and more earthly realities of history, that can be revealed in their raw appearances only by film, as indeed happens in the last part of the film.

The animation, then, is the screen set up in this film between the consciousness of filmmaker Folman - and the spectator - on the one hand and his experiences during the Lebanon war. It is also a screen between the memories of the interviewees and their emotions that become dissociated from their stories, since the interviewees are literally turned into cartoonesque figures whose blank faces and rather flat voices become screens offered to the spectators for projecting their feelings and emotions onto.

And of course, the animation film is a perfect medium for blending myth and reality, fiction and truth, figments of imagination and authentic memories. And as human memory is capable of adopting images and stories from others to fill gaps in memory or to reconstruct past episodes, WALTZ WITH BASHIR freely borrows its imagery from all kinds of cultural clichés (e.g., the pot smoking friend from Holland, porn as a German specialty) and war movies. During the scene in which the Israeli soldiers are chilling out on the Lebanon beach while waiting for orders to move to Beirut, one cannot help but expecting Robert Duvall to show up and bark: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," as he did in APOCALYPS NOW, just as the image of Folman's friend who raises in the midst of snipers' fire and starts to dance franticly while emptying his machine gun reminds one of similar images of frenzied GI's dancing and shooting on the rhytms and sounds of Jimi Hendrix in films like PLATOON (Oliver Stone, USA, 1986). Apart from being an animation, there is actually very little in this movie that had not already figured in one way or another in numerous other movies about the aftermath of WWII, the Vietnam War, or the Middle East conflict (e.g. Volker Schlöndorff's DIE FÄLSCHUNG (Fr/BRD, 1981)). Which makes one wonder what makes this film more a documentary than, say, APOCALYPS NOW or PLATOON?

WALTZ WITH BASHIR has more in common with the American Vietnam movies than the theme of (not) coming to terms with a traumatic past. The most remarkable correspondence is the almost complete absence of images of the enemy the American and Israeli armies are fighting against respectively. In the American Vietnam movies all one gets to see from the Vietcong warriors are shades and silhouettes (and in RAMBO - FIRST BLOOD (Ted Kotcheff, USA, 1982), the Vietcong were even replaced by Russian officers, the Soviets being a more worthy and fearsome opponent than the humble Vietnamese). In WALTZ WITH BASHIR, the only Lebanese and Palestians that get an appearance in the film, are (old) women and children, but hardly any able-bodied adult. In the American war movies, this absence constituted the cover that made it possible to depict the war and the American defeat as the result of a mythical internal, inner-American conflict between a bellicose and ruthless soul (say, John Wayne and the GREEN BERETS (John Wayne & Ray Kellog, USA, 1968)) and its compassionate and honorable counterpart that both live in America's "breast," as enacted in PLATOON in the conflict between the "mean" Sgt. Bob Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the "good" Sgt. Elias Grodin (William Dafoe). In these American Vietnam movies the war theater gets transformed into a stage for soul searching into the American mind at war with itself. In WALTZ WITH BASHIR, too, the absence of the historical adversary functions as a screen that must allow the filmmaker to do a bit of personal soul searching while avoiding the more painful issues of why and how and for whom he was fighting against whom.

The film literally keeps the burning question of what happened in the Palestinian refugee camps and what the responsibility of the Israeli army - and of Folman himself - was in the massacre safely at bay. The events are being told from the perspective of the Israeli military who had taken position just outside the camps from where they could not see what happened inside after the Phalangist militiamen had entered. Moreover, the images of the massacre's episode are almost all "taken" from a long distance during the night while the camps are lit only by alarm lights fired by the Israeli army (to make things easier for the Phalangists?).

At the very end of the animated part of the film, there is a sudden change of perspective, though. In one long shot the camera follows the Palestinian women who were allowed to re-enter the camp after the massacre, and tracking those women while they discover the bodies of their beloved ones, the camera moves on to end on a close-up of Folman, who no longer stands behind the camera or outside the camp as an impassible or powerless observer, but instead faces the camera, in full military gear, and in the middle of the camp, as if caught in the act. And as if to stress this touché par le réel, the film immediately switches to the live action images of the desperate women crying over the mutilated corpses of their husbands and children.

But is this really a resolution to the problem that launched Folman's quest? The end seems to suggest that one cannot for ever go on with soul searching and protracting the process of "mourning work" and that at some point one has to face the "real." However, the Folman who seems to realize that he is fully implicated in the horror of the massacre is also still fully part of the animation film, which raises questions about the status of this "memory": isn't it rather a kind of a guilt-ridden fantasmatic identification with the perpetrators of the massacre?

It is worth remembering that Forman's strongest feelings when he went to war were pain and anger with his girlfriend who had dumped him the week before, and that Cna'an went into the war to prove his still unconsumed virility: could it not be that the massacre of the Palestinian men and children is a sort of imaginary revenge on the women who had forsaken these two Israeli warriors? After all, didn't Folman's friend the shrink suggest that there was "another story" behind his anger about the Lebanese war? And do not Folman and Cna'an repeatedly emerge naked from the sea on the beach of Beirut to put on their Israeli military gear and go to war in the nightmare that started to haunt Folman after his encounter with his former fellow soldier Boaz.

According to Folman's psychiater friend Sivan the sea symbolizes "emotions," but these emotions are heavily eroticized by another dream image in the film, when Cna'an rests on the naked belly of a giant woman who carries him swimming through the sea, away from the war theater in Beirut, back into the safe "waters" of the motherly womb? After all, in Freudian psychoanalysis, the sea is a classical symbol of the womb. The images of the naked young men emerging from the sea and walking onto the beach where they put on their very virile uniforms and pick up their fallic rifles, represent a rather classical image of a kind of a rite of passage: innocent kids who are forced to leave the safe waters of childish innocence and now have to prepare themselves to face the harsh world of adults. Indeed, as earlier in the film the snow served as the screen that at the same time covers the frozen and unwelcoming soil and as the screen onto which to "draw", the animated images of the Lebanese war seem to serve as a "screen" memory that cover up another traumatic experience that in itself has not very much to do with the war. The film, that is, seems to "draw" what Freud called a "screen" memory.
Lost love, unconsumed virility, unfulfilled longing and love for the virgin/mother: the film is more about pueril and adolescent desires, anger and frustration than the war exploits of these young men. Or rather, the historical war theater is here transformed into a stage for the acting out of these frustrations. And it looks as if the Palestinian women have become the imaginary targets of Folman's rage.

And finally, do the TV-images of the results of the massacre actually "match" Folman's gaze, or are they just new resources to tap on in order to fill the gaps of his memory? And if these images somehow represent the "real," what sense are we to make of them? Or isn't that possible (yet), and is Folman about to begin a new round in his infinite search for consoling memories? What is missing, is precisely the story that links the animation movie with the live action images, the register of the "symbolic" that makes it possible to establish a bearable relationship between the "imaginary" (the animation part) and the "real" (the live action part), and that allows the adolescent to enter adulthood.

All this makes this film utterly unsatisfying. The animation turns out to be nothing but a decoy that distracts from the very classical nature of this quest for (personal) comfort and reassurance, long after the American Vietnam movies had proved that one doesn't need animation to create a mixture of fantasy and history, of myth and melancholy, of mourning and self pity, of self-delusion and denial. Because that is, in the end, what this is probably all about: the animation is just a new package to wrap a content that is already close to, if not passed, its expiration date.

Animation is a mode that is usually preserved for children's films or adolescents' computer games. In this film it is the symptom of a profound immaturity and incapacity on the part of the filmmaker to come to terms with the tragedy of the Lebanese war as an adult should: not by using personal frustrations such as the loss of a love as a screen to cover up less flattering parts of his biography, but by trying to understand his historical and political responsibility as a conscript and a citizen of a state that is at war, with its neighbors but probably most of all with itself and its own past.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Gomorra (2008): Dogmatic indifference

GOMORRA, the italian crime movie by Matteo Garrone that won the Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival 2008, is one of those very rare films today that leave a lasting impression. But impressive as the film is, it is hard to pin down exactly why it made such an impression. Sure, there is a lot of violence and killing in the film, but that is, after all, part and parcel of the gangster movie. It is no coincidence that GOMORRA makes a revering nod to SCARFACE (Brian de Palma, USA, 1983), one of the classics of this genre. Neither is it the brutality, ruthlessness and uncompromising manner in which the heads of the criminal clans impose and maintain their rule, because that's what they've always done in gangster movies, from Francis Ford Coppola's GODFATHER (USA, 1972; 1974; 1990) series, through, again, Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (USA, 1987) to the TV-series THE SOPRANOS (USA, 1999-2007). Nor is it the tragic fate of the two cocky adolescents who stumble on a arsenal of hidden weapons that belong to one of the clans and have to pay dearly for their refusal to return them and their attempt to start a two-men gang of their own. They share this fate with lots of other deluded young wanna-be-gangsters as in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Italy/USA, 1984) or Martin Scorcese's GOODFELLAS (USA, 1990). If one were to go by these elements of the film, the best one could probably say is that GOMORRA is a neo-neo-realist version of THE SOPRANOS, since its structure of multiple independent but interspersed story lines makes it more similar to a typical TV series than a feature film and THE SOPRANOS is a series that takes the familiar themes, motives, characters and plot elements from the gangster movie and 'remixes' them to make them fit for the format of the TV-sitcom (although the multiple story line format is not completely strange to cinema either, of course, as many Robert Altman movies make abundantly clear).

This, however, seems to be exactly the point where it hurts. A key image in the film shows how the haute couture tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), who runs a work shop owned by a mobster sees a Hollywood actress on the TV screen wearing one the gowns he was forced to produce against extremely low fees. It is the movies and the TV that reap the results of the labour and life delivered under severe conditions of exploitation and oppression that border on slavery, and turn them into glamorous objects of spectacle. That is, of course, what movies and TV-series do with the lives and the labour of those who are entrapped in a life ruled by criminal clans, competing gangsters, and trigger happy youngsters: they take those as the "raw material" for slick, thrilling, spectacular, engaging entertainment pieces that alwas reassuringly end with the prevailing of the 'good' or the 'just'. The problem, then, is how to make a movie about life in the 'Gomorra' into which the mob has turned many a popular quarter in Napels without making it glamorous, entertaining, thrilling, spectacular and certainly not reassuring.

One answer to the problem is to revert to the lessons of the postwar Italian neo-realists: shoot on location, use non-professional actors and actresses, and show the living conditions of the subjects of your film as they really are. In an age that is oversaturated with images in which almost every imaginable and unimaginable topic has found one form of representation or another - and thus inevitably become glamourized in one way or another in the process - this is no small feat. Italian neo-realism, for its part, has largely contributed to what Walter Benjamin in another context once called "the aesthetization of misery."
Feature films, documentaries, TV-reports and drama, moreover, not only turn every reality, however gruesome, into if not beautiful then at least digestible images, but they also tend to mold them into narrative patterns that provide the images with a minimally explanatory framework as well as with the expectation of some redemptive closure. One could even argue that because narrative promisses a minimal degree of comprehensibility and the reassurance that the represented events will come to some sort of end, images are licensed to turn their subjects into an object of spectacle and aesthetic pleasure, if not straightforward entertainment.

Narrative, moreover, usually also offers the lure of psychological identification with one the characters (usually the protagonist) and thus invites spectators to temporarily "identify" with and "live" the lives of the characters and become, at least for the duration of the screening of the movie, part of their world. Through identification with, say, Umberto D., the homeless pensioner of Vittorio De Sica's movie with the same title (Italy, 1952), the spectator "sees" and "experiences" the vagaries of the protagonist as he does, and becomes "aware" of what it means to live as a pensioner in the ruins of postwar Italy. And again, narrative makes these vagaries if not bearable then at least understandable, as it reassures the spectator that Umberto D's and by implication the spectator's ordeal will come to an end. And although in Italian neo-realism closure hardly ever brough a happy ending, it always promissed some sort of often spiritual or moral salvation and redemption. In movies, whether fictional or documentary, and TV programs, whether actualities or drama, narrative and imagery work in tandem to contain and frame, to clarify and beautify, to order and visualize, to explain and to aesthetize, and eventually to offer molds and patterns, roles and plots, problems and solutions for whatever "raw material" is fed into them. And in this respect, contemporary filmmakers face a situation that is totally different from their postwar neo-realist predecessors.

In these circumstances, adopting a neo-realist style is not quite enough to avoid the traps of glamorizing, romanticizing, and, maybe worst of all, relativizing the sordid conditions of life in Gomorra. After all, Italian neo-realism not only showed the misery of the Italian lower classes, but it also tainted its stories with at least a shred of hope for redemption. And this hope was founded on the explanations of the fate of the protagonists suggested by the narrative format: greed, egotism, indifference or ignorance on the part of the well-to-do as causes for the miserery of the less well-off. Nowadays, that is, the evocation of an Italian neoralist approach would also bring with it the evocation of the narrative schemes that were as defining for this movement as was its style.
Moreover, as happened with the western, the tropes of the gangster movie have now become so familiar, that they have not only become the stuff of parody (as exemplified by THE SOPRANOS, for instance), but also that the shere evocation of such a trope is bound to immediately mobilize these well-known narrative schemes and concomitant expectations in the mind of the spectator. In the day and age of 'visual culture,' there seems to be no escape from "Hollywood."

One possible way out of this conundrum is to adopt a "Dogmatic" approach to the subject. The Dogma95 movement, launched by Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, explicitly aimed at providing an alternative for the "superficial" and "highly cosmetized", that is, technology and special-effect driven "action movie" of today, which they also condemned for its "predictability" because of its justification of the plot by "the characters' inner lives". To stress its adversity to preformatted narrative schemes, rule 8 of Dogma95's "Vow of Chastity" formally states: "Genre movies are not acceptable." Although the makers of GOMORRA do not refer to the Dogma95 Manifesto and its accompanying "Vow of Chastity" at all, the Dogma95 rules seem to provide the perfect prescription for filmmakers who wish to avoid making a genre movie from the very stuff one of the most popular film genres is made of.

Garrone and his scriptwriter and crew seem to have made exactly the kind of film the writers of the Dogma95 Manifesto had in mind. Obviously, the film has no digital special effects, and some of the film's inevitable special effects, such as the explosion of a car, have been produced "on the spot", in front of the camera, exactly as they would have occurred in the absence of a film crew. The film is entirely shot on location, and, more importantly, the sets and characters seem to not have been embellished by extra lighting, props, costumes, or any other material not found on the sets. The camera, moreover, is constantly hand-held, and driven by an interest to capture the action in front of it than by aesthetic concerns about frame, angle, focus or light. This "point-and-shoot"-like aesthetics, that sometimes borders on the DIY film style of the YouTube uploader, not only gives the film an unmistakenly documentary outlook, but it also turns the spectator into a participatory observer (not unlike what happened in the film Ç'EST ARRIVÉ PRÈS DE CHEZ VOUS (Rémy Belvaux & André Bonzel, Belgium, 1992) in which the film crew follows a serial killer on his exploits), a kind of a field anthropologist and sometimes war reporter.

As an effect of this style, the spectator gets "immersed" into the world of this Gomorra, but as a field anthropologist, tourist, or, for that matter, the protagonists of Lars von Trier's movies, he or she lacks the keys to the codes of behavior, the histories and traditions, the hierarchies and ranking orders, the interests and motives, the ambitions and desires, that govern the actions of the characters that inhabit this place to which the spectator remains an alien outsider. This effect of being too close to see the whole is reinforced by the film's structure. It consists of five (and are there really only five?) story lines in which the vagaries of several different characters are being followed, of which it remains undecidable if, how, or to what extent they are related. And since the film shifts abruptly and seemingly randomly from one story line to another, without, for instance, jumping from one 'cliff hanger' to the continuation of another story line, it is pretty hard to keep track of the developments of each story line separately as well, especially since the continuation of a story line only rarely picks it up where it had left it, and each scene is swamped with characters, names and references to stories that had not been introduced or mentioned before.

This strategy is very succesful in drowning the classical tropes of the gangster movie, that inevitably cropp up in a film like this (the apprentice mobster who refuses to become like his boss; the youngster who sells his surrogate mother for a carreer in the mob; the young rebels who challenge the established order of the maffia; the work shop manager who starts moonlighting for the competition; the conciliere who wants to change sides and offers his services to a rivaling clan, etc.) in a plethora of information and indeterminacy and to make the familiar narrative schemes of the gangster movie inoperative to comprehend each situation at hand. It also prevents any identification with one of the characters, because it never becomes really clear what they want, with whom they are dealing, where they are in their particular stories, and why they do what they are doing. In short, the film refrains from "justifying the plot" through the "inner lives" of the characters. To paraphrase a trope from narrative theory, then, this "Dogmatic" strategy makes many a scene from this film descriptive, rather than narrative.
As a result, the film offers an almost documentary view of the squalid backside of the glamorous images spread by movies and tv, literally as when the camera follows Pasquale on his itineraries through the sweatshop he runs for the maffia and those of their Chinese competitors who hired him to teach their seamstresses the art of sewing, or when the camera follows Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), the accountant/consiliere of one the clan leaders on his way through the living quarters of the families of emprisoned mobsters to pay them their benefits, or when it accompanies the two wanna-be-gangsters when they go to an industrial wasteland to try out their newly acquired guns.

This strategy does to the content of the movie what its cinematic presentation does to the geography of this part of Naples: it turns it into a labyrinth where the spectator never knows where he or she is, and it creates the permanent threat of uncertainty of where the danger might come from and when it will show up. And again, this is not the Naples as it has been made famous by tons of pictures of its historical center distributed by the tourist industry and the movies and TV, but rather the other, less romantic and less illustrous side of Naples where no tourist ever comes.

However, the probably most disturbing effect of this Dogmatic approach is that for the inhabitants of this ecological niche this always and permanently present danger apparently is a fact of life, like rain in the summer is for the Brittish and the Dutch. Here, death, murders, abuses, shootings, and bombings are not an exceptional but the normal state of affairs, however dreadful this may be to the inhabitants of this Gomorra as it is to us, spectators, and they - not us - know they have to live with it. And it is exactly this enforced indifference on the part of the perpetrators as well as the victims of this permanent violence that emerges as the most disturbing feature of this film. There is no Grand Narrative here to be told, no explanation that would hold water, no appeal to consciousness or commiseration that would make sense, no redemption to be promised. In short, the violence in Gomorrah, that lacks narrative motivation, logical explanation, moral justification, and often any purposeful meaning, and is often executed in the most casual way, is the least glamorous, heroic, or romantic violence one could imagine. It is as glamorous as a drizzle in London or Amsterdam. It is this unglamorous and banal, everyday dimension of the violence in this maffia controlled place, that GOMORRA has succeeded in capturing.

Eventually, the spectator reemerges from this Gomorra only more alienated from the characters he or she thought s/he would become acquainted with. This Gomorra turned out to be place where the norms, morality, conventions, codes, and values that supposedly govern most of the civilized world do not apply. Ironically, the spectator winds up in the same position as the protagonists from the movies of Lars von Trier: one either has to adopt the grim outlook on life of the inhabitants of this strange place, or one will be doomed to perish. In all respects, GOMORRA is a Dogmatic treatment of indifference as a survival tool. If one would object that GOMORRA could not possibly be a Dogma movie because the "Vow of Chastity" forbids the occurrence of murders and weapons one should keep in mind that Dogma banned these items because they often serve to spice up "superficial action." In GOMORRA it is the other way around: murders and weapons are turned into unglamorous, indifferent and superficial elements, the nasty components of everyday life in Gomorra. And in this way, this film has succeeded in re-appropriating the topic of the maffia from "Hollywood."